Readers, I recently enjoyed myself for a week reading Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder, the story of scout and frontiersman Kit Carson.
But the book is also a tour through America’s Western conquest.
Kit Carson just happened to be the man who made acquiring everything from New Mexico to California possible, thus we get a ringside seat by just following him.
Sides, author of numerous non-fiction histories, made me feel I was there: And it was thrilling.
(By the way, Doubleday is publishing Sides’ new book in 2017. It’s about one of the most harrowing battles in American history, the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in the Korean War. It’s tentatively titled “Mountains of Fire and Ice.”)
Here’s my interview with him.
Robb: As I was reading your book, it seemed to me Kit Carson’s personality was very like the Indians he associated with and fought (and sometimes married); for instance, his beliefs in omens and bad medicine, his refusal to take a second shot if his first missed an animal, his dependence on intuition in sizing up people and situations.
Is this how you see it?
HAMPTON SIDES: Absolutely. Kit Carson spent most of his young adult years living more like a Native American than an Anglo American.
From the Indians he befriended, he developed all sorts of little quirks, protocols, and superstitions, if you want to call it that. Perhaps being illiterate, as he was, forced him to rely more on his hunches and instincts, many of which were honed by his years as a mountain man, living among the tribes. He spoke a half-dozen Indian tongues.
Some of his happiest days were the ones he spent with the Arapaho, his first wife’s tribe.
It’s remarkable that he’s known now, mistakenly, as this great Indian hater. Nothing could be further than the truth.
Robb: Kit Carson also seemed to be an admirable man in the way the Anglo civilization saw admirable: Modest, responsible, abstemious in his habits (he drank very little), a dry sense of humor and a great frontiersman.
You wrote he often saved people’s lives without expecting payment, was truthful and kind.
Yet, you called Kit Carson a “natural born killer.” You described his temper, his vengefulness (“If you crossed him, he would find you”), the way he described battles as “pretty,” and a preemptive attack on an Indian village as “a perfect butchery.”
Did the place make the man, or did the man find his natural place?
HAMPTON SIDES: Both, I think. The place accentuated the nascent tendencies that were already there in the man. Kit Carson did have this very sweet side to his personality, one that’s hard to reconcile with some of the more violent episodes throughout his career in the West.
From his family in Missouri, and from his Scotch-Irish background, he probably inherited a certain temperament, a zest for the fight, and a penchant for pursuing a grudge.
But then you plunk that personality in the vast uncharted wilderness of the West, a thoroughly violent and unpredictable world without laws, and you have a very explosive character on your hands.
Robb: You wrote that Kit Carson was not an Indian hater, but rather someone who had many Indian friends, befriended Indians, married two Indian women and always killed in what he believed were fair fights.
Do you find it ironic that Kit Carson opened the West for settlement through his explorations with John Fremont (“The Pathfinder”), which in turn destroyed the Indians’ way of life? Wasn’t this inevitable? Wouldn’t another scout have done it, if Carson had not been born?
HAMPTON SIDES: It is tremendously ironic, tragically so. The great theme of Carson’s life was that, wittingly or not, he fouled his own nest, he destroyed his own paradise, he set in motion great forces that systematically dismantled the raw wilderness of the West that he knew so well and loved so much.
The Fremont explorations ignited a surge of immigration that, in turn, led to the wholesale devastation of the Native American tribes. Carson wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, but he was at the very center of the movements that destroyed the world he held so dear.
While it’s true that someone else might have done it if Carson hadn’t, it’s especially poignant and rich that it was Carson who became the leading edge, leading Fremont, and effectively the entirety of Anglo-American capitalistic-industrial society, into the Western wilds.
Robb: I appreciated your not making any one people the bad guys. For instance, pointing out that Navahos took Hispanic slaves and the Hispanics took Navaho slaves, telling the reader what the Jicarilla Apaches did to captive Ann White (forcing her to be the band’s prostitute, then murdering her), making it plain that all the peoples fighting against each other took scalps.
Is that how you see it, that all three races (Indian, Hispanic and Anglo) were equally savage?
HAMPTON SIDES: I suppose so. We’re all humans, we all have the same DNA, the same capacity for good and evil. The only real difference was, Anglo Americans had the tools—the social structures, the technological advances, the guns, germs, and steel, as they say—to turn their will into a reality and transform life on a huge scale.
So, in the end, Anglo Americans were more effective in their savagery.
Robb: You have written many vivid scenes in this book, among them the murder of Charles Bent, Kit Carson’s escape at the Battle of Pasqual, the Klamath attack on Carson and the men he was traveling with, the (first) Battle of Adobe Walls, and many more. In writing this book, what historical episodes affected you most? Were you affected?
HAMPTON SIDES: You can’t write a history of this period and not be affected. There was so much bloodshed, so much tragedy, so much turmoil. So many forces were colliding: Indians clashing with Mexicans. Mexicans clashing with Americans. Americans clashing with Indians. Americans clashing with fellow Americans (during the Civil War).
What’s extraordinary is how much of all this Kit Carson witnessed and participated in. Time and time again, he’s right there, in the middle of it, a kind of Zelig figure, bouncing around all over this vast canvas of real estate.
You keep wondering: What’s he doing there? How’d he get there? He always seems to be in the thick of the action. Or if he’s not, he’s only one degree of separation from it.
Of all the episodes of his long and eventful life, I would say his conquest of the Navajo was the most difficult to write about. It’s almost as though everything in his life funneled down to that one conflict and that one place—Canyon de Chelly, in the heart of Navajo country.
Here a reluctant conqueror flips a switch and brutally brings this proud tribe to its knees. The destruction of those peach trees down in Canyon de Chelly—a militarily small but somehow a devastatingly powerful act—still haunts me.
Robb: I was astonished to read about the Pueblo and Hispanic revolts in Santa Fe and Taos against the American invaders. That was pretty savage. Do the New Mexicans remember these things, or has the memory faded, or even disappeared, with time?
HAMPTON SIDES: Oh yes, it’s still very much there, in the cultural memory here, and it’s studied to a certain extent in the schools. New Mexicans, especially those from a Native American or Hispanic background, are very clear on the fact that the United States Army came here and conquered this place by force and then occupied it against the will of the inhabitants.
They’re very clear, also, on the fact that some of those inhabitants actually rose up and tried—however crudely, however savagely—to throw out the hated occupier.
Here in New Mexico there is still hostility, sometimes overt but usually just under the surface, towards the Anglo-American presence. It’s a kind of asterisk attached to life here, that basically says: New Mexico may be part of the US of A, but make no mistake, this place was stolen.
Robb: Who was the next strongest personality in the West of that period, after Kit Carson, and why? Was it the vainglorious John Fremont? Stephen Kearny? The Navajo leader Narbona, or even President James Polk, the man who single-handedly conquered Mexico from his desk in The White House?
HAMPTON SIDES: That’s a really tough one. There are so many. There are hardly any “weak” characters from this period. Something about the harsh demands of the place and the times made people resilient and strong.
That’s one of the reasons, I think, why we’re drawn to stories about the Western frontier. Life was just so hard, so raw, so unforgiving, and so violent that it brought forth unbelievably stark and stout characters.
Probably my favorite character in the book, after Carson, is General Kearny. I’m convinced he was one of the most enlightened and most professional officers in the US Army, one of the rare bright lights in the whole story of the “winning” of the West. Kearny was principled, fair-minded, and firm. He carried himself with dignity but was not haughty or arrogant.
In his writings and speeches, you see a certain empathy for Native American culture, and for Spanish-Mexican culture, that sets him apart from most of the racist thinking common in Washington. If we’d had more officers like him, I believe the story of the Western conquest, brutal and brazen as it inevitably was, might have been a lot less tragic and a lot less bloody.
Robb: Carson and Davy Crockett had very similar lives. Both were renowned frontiersmen who became famous through fiction. Davy became famous through a play, and then his death at the Alamo. Kit Carson became famous through “blood and thunder” pulp novels.
I find this amazing. What about you?
HAMPTON SIDES: It is amazing. Carson was perpetually confused and bemused by his own celebrity. He didn’t understand why people back East seemed to need to fashion him into a hyperbolic hero, an action figure hero, a folk hero. He didn’t understand where it came from, why writers were making so much of his real exploits, and then fictionalizing them into even more fabulous tales of derring-do.
Kit Carson was the subject of countless newspaper articles, a Broadway play, numerous books. A large steamship and a clipper ship were named after him. In Moby Dick, Melville compared Carson favorably to Hercules.
And then there were all those “blood and thunder” pulp novels. Carson hated them, and spent much of his life fighting the caricatures and unrealistic expectations they raised.
The writers of those lurid tales never sought his permission to use his name, and he never saw a cent from them. He hated those books, also, because (and here’s the ultimate irony) . . . he couldn’t read them.
Carson was illiterate.